(OPE-L) Sherman: "On Wallerstein's The Decline of American Power"

From: gerald_a_levy (gerald_a_levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Mon Jan 05 2004 - 07:53:45 EST

Intro (untitled)
How the Soviet Union Propped Up US Power
Crisis of the World System
Wallerstein's Critique of the Failure of Leninism
Wallerstein's Strategic Recommendations for the Left
January 3 / 4, 2004

A Heroic Refusal to Succomb to Pessism
On Wallerstein's The Decline of American Power

 The Decline of American Power may strike some readers as odd. Only
 two chapters deal directly with the question of the strength of
American power, and neither of those produces many facts about its
ostensible decline. Other chapters address such topics as the
durability of racism, the relationship of the Islamic world to the
 Western world, the role intellectuals should play, and strategies for
 the left. The framework these topics are embedded in is not so much
 the decline of the US as the decline of the 'modern world system',
 said to have been born five hundred years ago with the rapid
 expansion of European colonialism. That is because this is a new book
 from sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who pioneered the analysis of
 the modern world system thirty years ago.

According to Wallerstein, the proper way to understand capitalism was
 not to study it on a country-by-country basis, as was widespread at
 the time (he also rejects the notion, popular lately, that one should
 understand 'globalization' as something new and dramatically
 different about the last ten years). Instead, capitalism was an
 international project from its outset at the beginning of the
 sixteenth century, one defined by a 'core' (of wealthy states),
 a 'periphery' (of impoverished states), and a 'semi-periphery'
 (wealthier than the periphery but subservient to the core). Most of
 what has changed in the last five hundred years is a result of the
 expansion of the system to include the entire world. In the decade
 following his publication of The Modern World System, Wallerstein's
 work was attacked from a number of perspectives. Marxists said that
 Wallerstein's theorization of class struggle was inadequate. Others
 said he lacked clarity about the dynamics of states. Or that his
 schema failed to capture the various nuances that characterized the
 entrance of different parts of the world into the capitalist world
 system and their resistance to it.

 For the most part, Wallerstein has not bothered to address his
 critics in much detail. The project of writing a history of the world
 system that fully incorporates these perspectives is left to his
 followers. Instead, he has tried to call attention to what he clearly
 believes is a central point, and one which for the most part his
 critics ignored: that the world system, having expanded to include
 the entire globe, is now at its terminus. Influenced by chaos theory,
 Wallerstein argues that we are at a bifurcation point, where
 individual actions can have considerable impact. We may produce a
world better or worse than the waning modern world system, but we
 will surely produce something different. Perhaps as a result of his
 belief in the potentialities of the moment, Wallerstein has focused
 more and more on cultural questions, the role of the intellectuals,
 and strategies of the left. In the new book, the context framing
 these questions is the decline of American power.

 How the Soviet Union Propped Up US Power

 The claim that US power is declining flies in the face of
 conventional wisdom. After all, the Soviet Union has collapsed, Japan
 appears to have faded as an economic threat, and if the US wants to
 invade Iraq, even if the whole world disagrees, it invades Iraq. The
 far left agrees with the New York Times: the US is the lone
superpower (Tariq Ali recently commented in Counterpunch that perhaps
 our grandchildren will witness its decline). Nevertheless,
 Wallerstein begs to differ. In his highly original view, the Soviet
 Union actually propped up American power during its heyday,
 its 'hegemony' (1945-1970). It did this in several ways. First, its
 military power scared Western Europe into the US camp. Secondly, the
 standoff with the Soviets relieved the pressure on the US to offer
aid to all the allies following World War II. Finally, the Soviets
 entered into a de facto agreement to police both its own empire and
 control its supporters worldwide, facilitating a stable world order.
 The one place where this system broke down was in East Asia, where
 first the Chinese and then the Vietnamese successfully resisted
 advice from Moscow to cool things down. The US wound up bogged down
 in a colonial war in Vietnam. Furthermore, expenditures on this war
 led to a loss of control of the world money supply. This coincided
 with both a worldwide revolt against the timidity of the established
 left (the 'world revolution of 1968' against dominant communists,
 nationalists, and social democrats) and the narrowing of the economic
 gap by Germany and Japan. Thus, for Wallerstein, the foundations of
 US hegemony were shattered by the early seventies, and the period
 since then has basically been one of slow decline.

 Two events punctuate this period. First, the demise of the Soviet
 Empire eliminated a key prop of the US world order, facilitating
 direct challenges to this order, epitomized by Iraq's invasion of
 Kuwait, and a drift away from the US by Europe. Secondly, there were
 the attacks of September 11. These attacks greatly strengthened the
 hand of the militaristic hawks in the US. The hawks had always been
 present, arguing that US losses in China, Vietnam, etc could have
 been prevented with a sufficiently massive show of force. But they
 had long been held at bay by liberal internationalists, who
 prioritized the alliance with Europe. With the US population
 terrified and disoriented, the hawks seized on the moment after
 September 11 to demonstrate that US decline could be reversed by a
 dramatic show of force. Hence the invasion of Iraq, which Wallerstein
 attributes much more to the need to demonstrate US power than to the
 need to control oil. Wallerstein is confident that the hawks strategy
 will result in the acceleration of US decline rather than its
 reversal, which he regards as impossible. Among other things, this
 strategy is facilitating the creation of an alliance between France,
 Germany and Russia, the geopolitical alignment dreaded at the end of
 WWII by US strategists. Meanwhile the Japanese build the world's
 largest computer, "(embodying) the oldest story in the history of
 hegemonic powers. The dominant power concentrates (to its detriment)
 on the military; the candidate for successor concentrates on the
 economy" (actually the Japanese computer is devoted to analyzing
 climatic change, which isn't exactly the economy, but the point
 holds). Later in the book he argues that the ability of capitalists
 to appropriate so much of the wealth of enterprises based in the US
 (celebrated in US media as 'reformed', 'streamlined' etc) will be a
 weakness in the next period compared to Japanese or European

 Crisis of the World-system

 As noted earlier, for Wallerstein the decline of the US is embedded
 in the larger trend of the demise of the capitalist system. His
 grounds for the latter claim are threefold. Three 'secular trends'
 (extremely long term) are squeezing the ability of capitalists to
 accumulate profits. First, wages have been drifting upward. Capital's
 traditional recourse is to pull workers from the rural world; they
 can be recompensed very inexpensively for a generation, after which
 they begin to form unions, and capital begins to drift elsewhere. But
 now the deruralization of the world is almost complete. Secondly,
 taxes have moved upward, squeezing profits. Third, capital's
 traditional practice of externalizing costs-by simply dumping its
 garbage into every stream and strip-mining every mountain-is
 encountering ecological limits. There are no more streams and rivers
 to pollute without serious consequence. The impact of these trends is
 compounded by the crisis of the state; basically, people no longer
 believe the claim that things are slowly getting better through
 political initiatives oriented towards the state.

 All of these claims undoubtedly sound odd to most readers. Haven't we
 been experiencing a period of thorough reaction, in which wages and
 taxes have been driven down, and environmental regulation weakened?
 Wallerstein, however, insists on focusing on the very long term.
 Although the last couple of decades have been ones in which
 reactionary forces have seized on the crisis of the left and the
 collapse of the center, they have not been able to push wages, taxes,
 or environmental regulation back to anything like what they were a
 century ago. When the left regains its footing (and Wallerstein has
 little doubt it will), it will begin from a higher point than where
 it was, say, ninety years ago. This does not, however, mean that the
 march to world socialism will quickly resume. Instead, it means that
 the current structures of the world, the capitalist world system, can
 no longer function adequately. Thus there will be an intense struggle
 over what new sort of world will emerge. The new world may be
 substantially better in important respects than the one we live in
 now; or it may not. Agency-what we do or don't do-becomes exceedingly
 important at such times.

 Throughout the rest of the book, he brings this analysis to bear on a
 wide range of topics. Even when he is on familiar territory, his
 writing is studded with intriguing ideas. For example, Wallerstein
 argues that political Islam is the product of the demise of the
 nation-state as a compelling locus of change, and the neoliberal
 weakening of state-based forms of social integration. This is a
 familiar point made by most serious academic writers on this topic,
 as is noting the exacerbation of tensions between the Arab Islamic
 world and the West as a result of Israel and oil. More intriguing is
 his comment that "Another element that adds to choosing Islam as the
 demon is the fact that most of the core of the Islamic world was
 never truly colonized. In an important sense, the West feels somewhat
 confident in dealing with ex-colonies. After all, they had conquered
 these areas once militarily and governed them, and think they know
 their weaknesses. The noncolonized or only semicolonized zones retain
 an aura of mystery and therefore of danger." But perhaps even more
 intriguing is his effort to find his political bearings in this
 context-"the real problem is that in the secularist and the
 fundamentalist camps in all parts of the world there are persons on
 both sides of what I anticipate will be the great politico-social
 struggle of the coming fifty years. I think myself that posing the
 issue as one of secularism versus fundamentalism is distracting us in
 a very major way from clarity of vision". No glib lectures about the
 reactionary quality of religion; since Wallerstein identifies
 liberalism as the dominant ideology of the capitalist world, the
 question of the terrain on which to oppose it becomes more

 Wallerstein's Critique of the Failure of Leninism

 Wallerstein devotes two chapters to grappling with left strategy. He
 has little sympathy for any efforts to revive Leninism. First,
 Leninism's failure as a theory was too great. The vision of expanding
 the 'socialist bloc' state-by-state altogether failed to anticipate
 that the socialist bloc would shrink to an inconsequential size. This
 despite the 'scientific' claims of its analysts. Secondly, Leninism
 had a threefold failure of vision-it was excessively focused on the
 state; relatedly, it abandoned any focus on the international; and in
 response to the arguments of liberalism, trumpeted the importance of
 equality over liberty. "This was entirely the wrong answer. The
 correct answer is that there is no way whatsoever to separate liberty
 from equality. No one can be 'free' to choose, if his or her choices
 are constrained by an unequal position. And no one can be 'equal' if
 he or she does not have the degree of freedom that others have, that
 is, does not enjoy the same political rights and the same degree of
 participation in real decisions." Wallerstein also bemoans the
 current state of the left, which he describes as uncertain, timid,
 and mildly depressed. While he welcomes the sense of uncertainty,
 which he considers more in touch with reality than 'scientific'
 proclamations about the direction of the class struggle, he believes
 the timid and depressed quality of the left is uncalled for.

 Wallerstein's Strategic Recommendations for the Left

 So what does he suggest? Wallerstein identifies seven elements:

   (1) Expand the spirit of Porto Allegre (i.e. The World Social
 Forum) by combining intellectual clarity, militant action, and
 demands for long term change;

   (2) Use defensive electoral strategies, essentially taking for
 granted the two coalition nature of contemporary elections worldwide
 and supporting the more left-leaning side (he applauds the American
 slogan 'the Rainbow Coalition', i.e. bringing a variety of racial and
 social movement categories together under one umbrella and the French
 slogan 'A plural left' i.e. bringing together a variety of old and
 new left tendencies);

   but (3) vigorously criticize it once in power (what he calls
 pushing democratization unceasingly);

   (4) Make the liberal center fulfill its promises (i.e. resist
 corporate bailouts on the grounds that free markets mean some
 capitalists will fail);

   (5) Make antiracism the defining measure of democracy;

   (6) Move toward decommodification; and

   (7) always remember we are living in an age of transition.

 The most novel of these ideas is his proposal
 for 'decommodification', which relates to his vision of a world
 beyond capitalism, a world composed of mid-size non-profit
 enterprises. Wallerstein notes that the present trend is quite the
 opposite, commodifying processes that were once thought outside the
 purview of the market (health care, education, etc). But, he argues,
 since the finest universities and hospitals operate as non-profit
 institutions, why not demand this as a general practice? Why not
 transform steel mills and other failing industries into non-
profits? "This does not mean they should be 'nationalized'-for the
 most part, simply another version of commodification. It means we
 should create structures, operating in the market, whose objective is
 performance and survival rather than profit." Profit would not be a
 category on their balance sheet; instead, they would either turn over
 extra funds to the state or reinvest them. Transforming them into non-
profits would address one of the classic weaknesses of traditional
 state socialism-its difficulty in upgrading technology. This has not
 been a problem with existing non-profit universities and hospitals.
 The transformation of industries into non-profits is also a demand
 that is simultaneously feasible in the short term (because particular
 failing industries can be immediately targeted) and thoroughly anti-
capitalist. This is a particularly novel idea since most talk of anti-
capitalism oscillates between the traditional vision of state
 socialism and utopian visions of myriad localized communities.


 This is an exceptionally rich book, and one could write a very long
 review if the goal was to take issue with all the propositions and
 ideas floated in it. Here it would probably be more useful to suggest
some questions that might push the analysis further along. First,
 there is a tension between Wallerstein's confidence that US decline
 is inevitable and his argument that we are entering a phase in which
 the old rules are suspended. If the old rules are suspended, why
 would the US decline in the same way as earlier capitalist powers?
 Might the US drive to construct a global empire (in the conventional
 sense of this world) be one of the possible futures he refers to, of
 the more unequal sort? Secondly, there is a certain unwillingness to
 unmoor his analysis from the world of states, bureaucratic
 organizations, and conventional politics, despite his own
 declarations that this world is coming undone. Transnational and
 diasporic communities, direct action and localized knowledge all play
 only a small role in his analysis. Third, in his world of nonprofit
 enterprises, how would decisions about how to allocate resources
 among the enterprises be made? What exactly would 'the market' these
 nonprofit firms are embedded in look like? When a university upgrades
 its technology systems, it does not become more efficient in the
 sense of being able to educate more students faster (usually such
 upgrades simply enhance the communicating power of existing students,
 professors, and researchers). But this is the impact of technology
 upgrades at steel mills or shoe factories. Wouldn't this force the
 nonprofit institutions into fierce competition which they all cannot
 possibly survive (a familiar left complaint about today's private
 market economy)? Why has gender disappeared from his analysis?
 Although other works make clear that he believes the ideology of
 gender is a crucial structure of the modern world, does he believe it
 is inconsequential to efforts to map the transition, or even to
 understand the demise of the US? Again, because this text bristles
 with so many ideas, this list of questions could be almost
 indefinitely expanded. What should be emphasized in conclusion is the
 refusal of Wallerstein to adapt the sanguine know-it-all pessimism
 popular on the left and instead to set his sites on broad questions
 of historical transition and strategy. In the present context, this
 refusal is positively heroic.

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